Yesterday, Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley appeared before the House of Commons Business Select Committee to defend himself against allegations around work practices at his company. There seems to be questions about whether Ashley has broken the law, but he was also summoned to give evidence about the company’s culture and general practices, like docking workers’ pay for being late or the number of ambulance callouts to his warehouse. We disagree with the laws which Ashley is alleged to have broken, like the minimum wage, but that is a separate matter. The point here is that once laws are in place, or contracts signed by two willing parties, then lawmakers have no business dragging anyone before them to be questioned. Citizens should not be obliged to answer to the legislative branch of government; lawmakers should have power only to change laws they deem unfit for purpose. If laws are not followed or contracts broken, it is a matter for the courts.
MPs are hardly humble about their own importance, and have threatened Ashley with contempt because he has repeatedly refused to come to Westminster for a grilling before he finally agreed to appear yesterday. They know this is an opportunity to shine – think only how Labour’s now deputy leader Tom Watson made his name on the committee which interrogated Robert Murdoch. So these committees are becoming more frequent. The Business select committee is also currently looking into the collapse of retailer BHS, and are apparently finding issues “of potential fraudulent preference, of creditor preference and of misappropriation of corporate assets.” So laws may have been broken, but what right does this give politicians to demand anyone to obey their desire to be informed about events? Is it not for the courts to investigate and pass judgement?
There is a distinct Atlas Shrugged quality to politicians pontificating in this way, demanding answers from their subjects, who are expected to be cooperative and contrite that they have somehow violated the politicians’ values – values which are understood to be shared by everyone. Mike Ashley did just that, likely motivated by damage limitation given the bad press he was receiving. It is understandable that Ashley has his company’s best interest at heart, but we wish that one day someone would appear before a select committee and do what Hank Rearden does in Ayn Rand’s book, when he is tried for breaking a law requiring him to sell his metal to every buyer who asks: Rearden refuses the courts’ right to try him, and offers no defence. MPs have no right to drag people before them and demand answers; how refreshing it would be if someone would appear at one of their committees and tell them so.